Barry MacQuarrie
Barry MacQuarrie
Raising the Bar on Productivity

Tip #1: Have some fun.

February 5, 2009
by Barry MacQuarrie, CPA

It’s January, the start of a new year. True to form, magazines and industry-specific publications are filled with Top 10 lists. I have read many well-written articles that are filled with great ideas about new technologies. These articles often focus on new products that will have a profound impact on our personal and professional lives. Each time I read a Top 10 list, I can hear the skeptics, “Just what I need; more technology to make my already busy life even busier!”

So, I thought it might be fun to assemble a very different type of Top 10 list.

As we face a very uncertain economy, our natural reaction is to often spend less and cut back. I suspect that many of us will see a reduction in our IT budgets. I remain optimistic that our economy will get better, but I also realize that we can increase profitability by better utilizing our existing technology.

My 2009 Top 10 list will focus on 10 things you can do right now to improve your productivity by changing the ways you use technology. Technology, when used correctly, can make life (in this way too busy world) that much easier.

Top Ten Ideas for 2009

  1. Manage Outlook Instead of Being Managed by Outlook. If you are reading this article at work, I’m going to ask you to stop reading it just long enough to glance at your PC. Do you have your e-mail program open? Why? While I clearly understand the power and convenience of e-mail, I personally think that it is one of the biggest efficiency killers around. People use e-mail as an excuse to not concentrate on the important matters of the day. I’ve heard all the excuses, “I need to respond to my boss or my clients immediately, so I have to have e-mail open all the time.” Do we really need to respond immediately?

    In her book, Never Check E-mail in the Morning, Julie Morgenstern writes, “Checking e-mail interrupts continuity in our thought process, and not surprisingly, our productivity plummets as a result. E-mail is undoubtedly the world’s most convenient procrastination device.” She goes on to recommend a strategy of avoiding e-mail during the first half hour of everyday and checking it only on a periodic basis.

    Just for fun, try closing e-mail for an hour or two. It is amazing how much more you will get done! Be careful, it is a habit that you just might like. Hopefully your boss will notice the increase in your productivity and may not even miss the lack of immediate responses.
  2. Learn Adobe Acrobat. What do you mean, ‘learn Acrobat’? I know how to open a PDF file.” While that may be true, there is so much more you can do with Adobe Acrobat. Learning this application will make you more efficient. Have you ever seen “someone else” receive a PDF, print it, walk to the printer, walk back to their cubicle, use a red pen to write on the printed document and then walk to someone’s office to discuss the document? There is a better way.

    Our world is filled with digital documents. As accountants, we constantly use digital documents to exchange information with clients, vendors and co-workers. Do we really know how to “use” these new digital documents? Adobe Acrobat is a very powerful application. We can use it to document our thoughts, help our co-workers understand the information and gather data using PDF forms. All this without ever leaving our desk or grabbing a red pen!

    Learning the powerful features of Acrobat will help you be more productive. I have found some great classroom and on-line training classes on Acrobat.
  3. Improve Your Business Process. Do you have any inefficient processes in your office? Have you ever heard of Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing? These are methodologies that focus on a build-efficient-business process. Changing business process can be difficult but can lead to dramatic efficiency gains. Look around your office. Are there ways that you could use your existing technology and an improved business process to become more efficient?

    Improving business process involves documenting existing workflows or processes, analyzing their effectiveness, having a vision for a change, testing new processes, training others and implementing change. The last is often the hardest! Look for opportunities to help your company gain a competitive advantage with leaner, more productive business process.
  4. Scan Early and Often. Building on the last two ideas, we can improve our efficiency by working with digital documents. In addition, it frees us from the need to be at our desk in order to get work done! I have seen CPA firms that have radically changed the process they use to prepare individual tax returns by scanning the client documents as they arrive. Scanned document, together with multiple monitors, can have a profound impact on a process that has traditionally been very paper intense. This “scan first” approach can be applied to vendor invoice approval process, payroll processing and countless other processes in your organization.
  5. Avoid Inbox Overload. It’s amazing how those lessons that we learned as young kids stay with us forever. Do you remember your parents telling you to “clean up your room”? I do. A messy room is often the source of much parental stress! I don’t know about you but I know plenty of adults who are stressed out about the mess in their Inbox. In our e-mail-centric world, keeping our Inboxes clean has become a constant battle. Each e-mail message seems like just another item on our endless to do lists! Finding a way to move items out of our Inboxes will help improve your productivity. You may find that using Outlook folders or tasks will help you manage this work required by each new message in your Inbox. You may also find that devoting a specific period of time each day to “cleaning and organizing” will prove effective.
  6. Change the Default Notifications on Your BlackBerry. Do you know anyone who is addicted to their BlackBerry? Our PDAs (BlackBerrys, Treos, iPhones etc.) have become a further extension of the e-mail problem. I believe that part of the problem is the default notification settings. Do you really need your BlackBerry buzzing or flashing every time you get an e-mail or text message?

    Here’s an idea, turn off your BlackBerry. OK, if that is too extreme, try turning off the buzzing, beeping and blinking red light. Let the device be managed by you instead of you being managed by it. You will find that changing the default notifications will help. You will be able to better focus on the tasks at hand and the people in your lives, if you are not being constantly beeped or buzzed.
  7. Stop Printing Everything. It seems like the more technologically advanced we become — especially paperless applications like e-mail — the more paper, we have. Paper has its place, but maybe we can cut back a little. Many smart tax professionals who have moved to on-screen review. It not only makes them more efficient, but it has saved a few trees as well. Before you print that next e-mail, just ask yourself if it is necessary. You may find that your productivity increases each time you avoid walking to the printer. You might save yourself some money as well!
  8. Learn Microsoft Excel. Much like Adobe Acrobat, we underutilize this product as well. A few hours spent on an Excel training class could significantly improve your productivity. Learning the advanced features and formulas in Excel will make it easier for you to work with data and exchange information with others.
  9. Standardize Your Business Process. This may be the simplest (and hardest) way to improve a company’s overall efficiency. Imagine if everyone processed the same transaction the same way every time! How much would that save your company?

    Most CPA firms have multiple ways to do the same task and this is often the result of the individual demands of the partners. It is terribly inefficient and easy to spot. Simply ask a staff person to prepare a tax return. If their first response is “Which partner is this for?” then you might have a problem. The staff’s productivity is suffering from having to learn multiple ways to perform the same task — and worse — spending their time trying to remember which person likes which method! A standardized business process can save a corporation a lot of money!
  10. Have Some Fun. Just for fun, try getting away from all of the technology. It may sound strange to hear that from a person who makes a living working with computers, but I believe that some time away from technology can give you new perspective. Step away from all of the technology around you and take a walk on the beach, go for bike ride or go to the library. The experience of not having beeping, buzzing or other distractions can be fun. It will give you an appreciation for all the ways technology helps us and may give you some time to think of new ways to use the technology that surrounds you.

Here’s to a Better 2009

Did anything on this “Top 10” list catch your eye? I hope that some of my ideas will help you find a little more time in your day! If you do, spend it with your family, your dog or just sitting in a lounge chair watching the fast paced world go by.

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Barry MacQuarrie, CPA, is the Director of Technology at KAF Financial Group. Barry has extensive experience working with CPA firm technologies and expertise in workflow, process improvement, disaster recovery planning, security and paperless office technologies.